The Irish Times view on abortion services: Key questions are still unanswered
Both the Government and the medical profession have a duty to provide the service as soon as it is safe and practicable to do so
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right) and Minister for Health Simon Harris (left) said abortion services would be available on January 1st 2019, but key hospitals say the timetable is too tight. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
In enacting legislation to give effect to the outcome of the abortion referendum, and putting in place a system for the provision of terminations, the Government had to weigh two imperatives. On one hand, it was important to act on the resounding result of the public vote last May and introduce a system that would be accessible to women without unnecessary delay. On the other, it was vital to ensure that that system met the highest standards, and that patient safety could be guaranteed. That meant that medics had to be properly trained and signed up, clinical guidelines published, hospital services adapted and the public fully informed about how the new regime would work.
That’s complicated work, and it cannot be done overnight. At the outset, however, Minister for Health Simon Harris imposed a tight timeframe by announcing that abortion services would be available from January 1st 2019, a Bank Holiday. Harris remarked on Sunday that that date was not a “deadline” or a “political project” for him, but of course that’s exactly what it is: a political decision taken apparently without consulation with those who have to provide the services.
Important work has been done in recent months to lay the groundwork. The Health Service Executive has made progress on models of care analysis, service planning and procurement. It has a communications strategy and has been engaging with unions, professional bodies and women’s representative groups.
The result is that, less than two weeks before Christmas, we still don’t have answers to basic questions
But it should come as little surprise that the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital in Dublin has told the Government it will not be ready to provide services on January 1st, and that no hospital in the Dublin Midlands Hospital Group is in a position to meet the deadline either. In response to complaints from the hospitals, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar remarked that introducing abortion services was not “a case of just flicking a switch” and acknowledged the regime would have to be “phased in”. That’s plainly true, but Varadkar and Harris appear to have been slow to realise it.
The result is that, less than two weeks before Christmas, we still don’t have answers to basic questions. We don’t know how many GPs will provide terminations. Nor do we know their geographic spread. How many maternity hospitals will be ready on January 1st? How many GPs will be trained by then? At this late stage, we don’t even have sight of the clinical guidelines that will be given to members of the medical profession.
Irish women have waited a very long time for the right to an abortion in their own country. The will of the people is clear, and both the Government and the medical profession have a duty to provide the service as soon as it is safe and practicable to do so. After all, it can’t be done by just flicking a switch.